1n 1988, Chile held a national referendum to determine whether the populace wanted to retain Augusto Pinochet, who’d seized power in a coup d’état 16 years earlier, as their dictator. Pinochet had no opponent at that stage—Chileans were simply asked to vote “Yes” or “No” as to whether his rule should continue for another eight years. As the title suggests, Pablo Larraín’s No focuses on the battle to oust the general, but it isn’t a sober account of political infighting, nor a passionate ode to grassroots urgency. Instead, No observes the antics of the advertising team drafted to sell “zero more years” to the public on late-night television, via a 15-minute ad following an entire day of Pinochet-controlled broadcasting. (The “Yes” side also got 15 minutes, though it hardly needed them.) As it turns out, Chilean commercials of the late ’80s closely resemble American commercials from the mid-’70s, only wackier. The result is the most unexpectedly riotous comedy in years—one with more bite than usual.
A story like this needs an unconventional hero, so No introduces a maverick ad man played by Gael García Bernal (who’s Mexican, but never mind), first seen working on a campaign for a soft drink called Free. Pressed into service by the “No” contingent, largely on the basis of his cynically upbeat approach to Free-dom, Bernal quickly realizes that the challenge isn’t so much persuading Chileans to vote against Pinochet as it is persuading them to vote at all—not only has it been a while, but to many, the referendum (a repeat of one eight years earlier, which Pinochet won handily) seems like an exercise in futility. Depressing the public with negative attack ads won’t help, he decides. And thus begins an absurdist crusade, fueled by hilariously crass ad tactics (jingles!), to make a “No” vote feel more like “Hell yes!”
These commercials are so ludicrous that they feel like satirical exaggeration. In fact, Larraín uses the actual ads, meticulously recreating the circumstances involved in creating them so the juxtaposition appears seamless. He also chose to shoot the entirety of No on a decades-old video camera, giving the film a cruddy, lo-fi verisimilitude that only enhances the comedy. (This might be a new trend—Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess, which premièred at Sundance last month and is set in the early ‘80s, employs the same technique.) Anyone who’s seen the director’s previous films, most notably Tony Manero (2008) and Post Mortem (2010), knows his take on the Pinochet era has been disquietingly brutal, sometimes hard to endure. By tackling similar ideas from a radically different angle, Larraín not only demonstrates he has more than one trick up his sleeve, but also confirms that there are few historical subjects so important and serious that they can’t profitably be made ridiculous.